by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
When I was imagining writing this blog last week, it was with the intention of reflecting on a concept called “an emotional acre of land.” The concept suggests that well-being is linked to our ability to have a private psychological space to think, feel, and be. The theory behind the acre is that the more intruded upon our psychic lives are, the less likely we are to feel safe, held, and ultimately, productive.
Then two Black men lost their lives to police this week, and I noticed that my own emotional acre of land quickly vanished, intruded upon by startling images of violent injustice and horrifying loss. And the fact is, that as a White woman, I am lucky to ever have access to this emotional acre, given how many people in our country are deprived of not only having rich psychological lives, but of having life at all.
I could offer shocking statistics about racial inequity in this country, but the fact is that I probably don’t have access to anything that you haven’t already read on Facebook. I am sure you might have read that Philando Castile was actually the 4th person that American police killed yesterday, or that Alton Sterling was a homeless man, trying to raise his family in a shelter, by selling CDs on the street. Or perhaps you read that a White man newly released from prison is as likely to be hired as a newly graduated Black man from college. I am sure you saw that Black men represent 9% of Americans but more than 40% of the unarmed people killed by American police. Or that an unarmed Black man is 700% more likely to be killed by police than an unarmed White man.
But what do the numbers do? Not much. What do the videos, tweets, FB posts do? Well, they typically fade. How can we stay awake? How can we allow our clients - the oppressed, marginalized, and suffering - to acquire both the literal and metaphoric acres of land that they are past due?
For me, I try and return to the NASW Code of Ethics, our own personal constitution. The preamble states:
The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.
What this means, of course, to do our jobs honorably, is that we must consistently and vigilantly unlearn racism, and give voice to those whose voices are hoarse, strained, disappeared. But that is broad and hard to apply. The real question is: how do we maintain an eye on the byproducts of violent oppression while practicing clinical social work? And in answering this question, we ought to attend to staying awakened in a sustained and focused way, to ultimately shift the amount of spaces that our clients can rest their minds within.
When working with people of color, as a White clinician (and please note the remainder of this post is really directed to White clinicians), the more consistently we invite feelings of fear and lack of safety into our work, the more permission we give to address these issues. We have to walk a fine line between both knowing about the depths of oppression, and at the same time realizing that we can never fully understand. While there are ways in which some oppressions overlap, the unique experience of feeling unsafe in the hands of law enforcement, has to be recognized for its idiosyncratic psychological ramifications.
To be a part of any agency at all suggests that we are part of an overall societal structure that serves to perpetuate oppression and racial disparity. Those settings include hospitals, schools, social service organizations, adoption agencies. The list goes on. The fact is that to be a part of almost any organized structure in American society is to be part of a system of racialized functioning. It is in the interest of our Code of Ethics to carefully study the ways in which this is occurring in all of our work settings and to subsequently make this transparent to our clients. For example, if you are part of a division of human services making a visit to a home of a Black family, it is worth saying, “I want to know how it feels to have me visiting you,” “What is your perception of this organization,” “I am sorry for the ways that this organization may have disrupted your community or family in the past.”
We often think that by not addressing race, we are somehow all at peace. Though we would not consciously claim this, it is implied by our silence. The fact is that in any heterogenic racial pairing, race is a relational factor. The more we commit to being transparent about this, the more productive and deep our clinical relationships can become.
It is also our work to surrender any defensiveness we feel about our own racism. The fact is that to live in America is to be racist. Perhaps this is true in other countries, as well, but I cannot speak as clearly to that. Despite how impassioned we are about equality, this does not shift our very real unconscious biases. And more importantly, it does not shift how powerfully these unconscious biases get activated when we have depleted internal resources. We are depleted of internal resources when we are scared, overworked, undersupervised. These very real social work issues diminish us to our more base instincts, leaving us functioning in a far less empathic and culturally relativistic manner.
In this surrendering, it is also our clinical duty to consider the real psychological ramifications of living in a society that is skewed away from justice for your family and community. The tension between many police officers and Black communities leaves members of those communities in a heightened and vigilant state, akin to what PTSD looks and feels like. To not be able to comfortably and confidently call the police if you are being robbed, if you have a loved one who has fallen, or if you cut yourself with the kitchen knife, is to live in a world that is inherently unsafe. The central tenet underlying the possibility for human growth and development is a feeling of safety. In other words, huge portions of our country are deprived of the psychological resources to comfortably grow into our world. Additionally, seeing that there has been no justice taken while Black lives have inexplicably and viciously ended furthers how much our world is impairing the possibility of providing emotional acres of land within which to reside and grow.
Clinically, our actual work comes down to the provision of an emotional acre of land for each of our clients. For our clients of color, this requires a more generous invitation into the room. It requires an intentional invitation that honors the complexity of the state of our world, never denying our part in it. It requires an invitation that recognizes the racist past and present of our country. It requires an invitation that realizes that it might take some extra time to settle in and that our hurried work will not make this settling possible. And it requires an invitation that recognizes that rage and grief, right now, are probably the healthiest emotions anyone can feel in the face of more ordinary lives lost to extraordinary abuses of power and authority.
Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She provides more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.